Highlights 2020 Workshops

IMG_2108Just the other day, I was thinking fondly of the Highlights workshop I led in Honesdale, PA, with Cynthia Leitich Smith and Sean Petrie, all of  two years ago!

This year, the Highlights Foundation’s offering yet another terrific roundup of workshops, retreats, and symposiums for writers across genres, forms, and experience levels.A handy filtering tool has been added to the site to help you sort through the list and find the one that’s right for you.

Here are just a few examples:

Be sure to make time to walk in the woods as well.

The Golden Rule and Paying it Forward: Carmen Oliver and Don Tate

Carmen Oliver and Don Tate have been longtime critique partners, and they’re getting ready to lead a workshop together in Honesdale, PA for the Highlights Foundation. I asked them: 

What have you learned about giving and receiving feedback on a work in progress? What’s helpful and what’s not, from the viewpoint of the giver and the receiver of critical feedback?
  

Carmen consulted with Don and here is her reply: 

Yes, our first critique group formed back in the mid 2000’s. We met through SCBWI and partnered with several other writers. Over the years, some of the groups have folded, but Don and I have remained constant critique partners. We’ve bounced ideas off one another, we’ve even dabbled in writing a book together. As our careers have gotten busier—and Austin traffic widens the divide (we live on opposite ends of the city)—we often meet on-line or over the phone to discuss projects.

One of the most important things that we’ve learned is the Golden Rule: treat others the way you want to be treated. We don’t tell each other what or how to write. Rather, we ask questions. This allows the other to delve deeper into their story, to think more broadly. We ask “what if” questions, which can help to find holes in the story structure. We suggest taking a look at a story from differing vantage points.

 We’ve also learned the importance of encouraging and not discouraging. Criticism must be honest, yet constructive and helpful. Sometimes it takes a lot longer for an author to uncover the heart of the story.

 When receiving feedback, it’s important to step back at first, take a breath. Don’t take criticism personally. Take a second to be open to what your critique partners are offering. Don’t be so quick to respond defensively. Mull over comments. Consider what is useful to you and what is not. After you’ve had time to process your thoughts, delve back into your project. Keep the dialogue open with your critique partners, if you have questions that need further answers.

 [Uma] In the end, we’re all looking for publication, but how do you tell the stories that matter to you while still being realistic about what’s likely to sell? What does that balancing act entail for each of you?

 [Carmen] Initially, Don doesn’t worry what’s going to sell or not sell. Instead, he writes what interests him, what he wants to explore or to learn about. Often times, through research and exploring the topic, he discovers whether the investment in time is worth it. Some topics are exciting at first discovery, but then quickly fizzle out for various reasons. Writing a book requires a lot of time, so it’s necessary to choose a subject that will keep your attention through the months, and even years.

 [Uma] And you?  How does this balance work for you?

[Carmen] Back in 2005, I began working on A VOICE FOR THE SPIRIT BEARS: HOW ONE BOY INSPIRED MILLIONS TO SAVE A RARE ANIMAL (Kids Can Press, May 7, 2019). This book took eleven years to figure out. I never gave up on it because I believed it was a global story that would matter to young kids everywhere. And so I kept at it until I found the heart of the story. Over the years several publishers turned the manuscript down, so I put it away and then came back to it with fresh eyes, to do the additional work needed. I also believed that this story needed to find the right home. And eventually, it did.

 In the publishing world, it’s a good idea to study lots of books of the genre you’re writing for, to know the crème de la crème! What books are being talked about, getting the publishing industry’s attention? Why? Which ones strike a chord in you? Which ones linger long after the last page? Which ones make you stop and think? Pay attention to those books, learn from them. They’ll likely inform your own work.  

 [Uma] And teaching? Where does passing the love along fit into your writing life?

 [Carmen] Early on, Don and I realized that teaching would definitely be a part of our journeys. Within children’s publishing, we’ve discovered the generous tradition of reaching out to help others. We’ve both received mentorship from many award-winning authors and illustrators over the years. It was important to pay it forward, to the next generation of writers/illustrators following their dreams. Our students have inspired us. We learn just as much from aspiring book creators as they learn from us.

 [Uma] This one’s for Don. As a writer who is not also an illustrator, I often wonder if there are stories that are just beyond my capacity to tell because I can’t think like an illustrator. Don, can you talk about how your illustrator’s mind benefits your writing? What can a wordsmith like me learn from someone like you?

 [Carmen checked with Don, and reported] Don doesn’t think the capacity to tell a story is limited because you’re not an illustrator—although as an illustrator, he’s always asking: What does it look like? It’s one thing to put pretty words on paper. It’s another thing to make those words visual. As a wordsmith always ask yourself what is happening in a scene, picture it in your head. With a picture book, every detail can’t be in the text. But the more familiar you are with the visual details of a scene, the better equipped you are writing visually. Like Don says: You’re painting a picture with words.

 For example, when Don wrote and illustrated POET: THE REMARKABLE STORY OF GEORGE MOSES HORTON, he learned that a letter writing campaign, and books that published against slavery, was an important element of the climax of George’s story. But, oh how boring and not very visual that would be. Instead, Don chose to focus on visualizing the results of the published letters and books—people fighting back against injustice.

Thanks, Carmen and Don. Have fun at your workshop. You too, all you lucky Highlights writers and illustrators who get to work with this talented teaching duo.

Sean Petrie on Typewriter Poetry Rodeo

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Keep an eye out for these typing poets in your neighborhood. They can make you laugh and cry with their 3-minute personalized poems. That is correct. Three minutes. Personalized. Guaranteed.

Vintage typewriter poet and master of flying verbs Sean Petrie helped Cynthia Leitich Smith and me (lucky us!) when we led our Highlights Foundation workshop last year. Sean threw in some poetry rodeo for us one evening and I have been a committed fan ever since.

61xJk-TYSdL._SX435_BO1,204,203,200_So I talked to Sean about the forthcoming typewriter rodeo book–yes, there is a book!

[Uma] Typewriters. Poetry. Ad libbing. Put those three things together for me—how did this begin?
[Sean] It was not really anything we planned — and definitely not something we expected to last more than a day!
Back in 2013, Jodi wanted to do a booth at the Austin Maker Faire, which is a craft festival, featuring people who “make” things, from art to robots to wooden spoons.  But Jodi, who had an editing business, wasn’t sure exactly what she would make — maybe something with words?  So she put out a call to me and two other friends (Kari Anne & David), to do a booth called “The Word Makers,” where we would make up poems, stories, anything involving words, for the festival guests.  Kari Anne collected old typewriters, so she brought those along, because she thought it might be fun to use them, too.  But really, we had almost no idea what we’d do — we just planned to figure it out as we went.
Once we started, people flocked to the typewriters — mostly for the wonderful clacking sound.  And for some reason we began with haikus (probably because they are so short, and gave us a clear structure), on whatever topics people gave us.
Pretty soon a line formed at our table, and someone asked us, “Do you all do this at other events?”  We looked at each other for a nanosecond, and then said in unison, “Of course we do!”  Also that day, someone in line called out, “This is like a typewriter rodeo!”  The name stuck, and we registered the domain that night.
[Uma] And the book? How did that come to be?
[Sean] It’s pretty magical, how much complete strangers will share with us, and how much of a brief, intense connection we can have, writing them a poem.  Once those folks leave our poetry table, however, we generally never see them again.
But after we’d been doing events for a couple years, we’d gotten a following on social media, and some of our poems — and the stories behind them — had found us again, with people posting about them or emailing us.
We submitted a handful of these to a literary agent, who loved the idea, and then we reached out to more poem recipients, to try and collect more poems and stories.
Andrews McMeel (who I adore because they also publish The Far Side cartoon anthologies) agreed to publish the book, as not just a collection of poems, but even more so of the people and stories behind those poems.  It’s as much a human interest book as a poetry one.  And we are so excited about it.
[Uma] This has got to feel like doing a Tabata workout with words. How does quick thinking on the keyboard impact the rest of your writing? 
[Sean] I’ll be honest, I had to look up “Tabata workout” to see what it was, but yes, exactly!  It is definitely a rapid-fire mental workout, and sometimes a fingertips-tapping one too!
I think it helps the rest of my writing in two important ways.
First, it’s a great tool to fall back on, when I feel like I have writer’s block.  At the poetry table, there’s no such thing as writer’s block — we don’t have time.  There is literally someone standing there, waiting for you to write them a poem on the spot.  And there’s a line of other folks behind them, waiting for you to finish and get to them.  So there’s no time to worry about writer’s block — you just jump in, start typing, and trust in yourself.  When I feel stuck in my other writing, I try to draw on those same feelings, mentally put myself in that same situation, to keep going.
And that leads to the second, related aspect — writing confidence.  Often when I start a poem, I have no idea at all where it will go.  But I’ve learned to trust that whatever pops into my head, that is *always* the best place to start.  And that, somehow, some way, I’ll find a way to make it work by the end.  Sure, some poems “work” better than others, but that’s just life.  And if I tried to figure it out in advance, tried to plot out the “perfect” poem each time, I’d never get anywhere.  Also kinda like life.
[Uma] And finally, what does using a typewriter add to the whole process?
[Sean] First off, there’s the lovely sound, which often draws people to our table.
But also, there’s the inability to delete your mistakes.  Our typewriters are all manual ones, with no correcting ribbon or anything like that.  So, you type “hope” where you meant “hype,” you are stuck with that wonderful accident.  And sure, you could cross it out, but it’s still there.  Or you can go with the unplanned gift of “hope,” take the poem in a new direction.  (That is, if you even realize the mistake at the time…)  I find that both terrifying and freeing — with our typewriters, there’s no way to avoid mistakes, but that means you don’t try as hard to be perfect.  Also there’s literally nowhere to hide with a typewriter — the poem recipient sees the letters, the moment I type them.
I think all of that, along with handing the recipient a physical copy of the poem, right there on the spot, creates this wonderful brief bit of connection between the two of us — connection that often seems so lacking in our social media, screen-oriented world.
[Uma] Thank you, Sean Petrie. Here’s to happiness and accidents and combinations thereof. 

Following the Story Trail at Highlights

I had a half day to myself at the end of a delightful Highlights Foundation workshop with my co-leader Cynthia Leitich Smith and our amazing TA, Sean Petrie, with visiting wonder-agents Ginger Knowlton and Elizabeth Harding of Curtis Brown, Ltd. I was left exhausted but my mind kept on buzzing. A hike seemed in order. The trails on the Highlights map beckoned. The sun came out. The birds chirped. The universe seemed to be urging me to step into the wilderness and find myself.

My two hour hike turned out to be a kind of living metaphor for the writing of any large work–a novel, a nonfiction book–where you can’t see the forest for the trees.IMG_2108

I got lost more than once. I followed the blazes on the trail.

The well-marked trail I was blazing with enthusiasm branched off into an unmarked ramble. There was a trail but it didn’t quite sync with the map.

The leaves crunched pleasantly under my feet.

I passed the same tree three times and each time I noticed something new about it.

I was uneasily aware that this was tick country.

A flock of blue jays diverted and distracted me so I lost track of time.

A major signpost pointed firmly to the last stretch–but was upside down.

Yup. All in a day’s work. Highly recommended. What’s the point of writing (or hiking) if you don’t take risks?